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Wheelchair basketball changing Klinkner's life

(Photo courtesy of Greg Devereaux)

Derek Klinkner talks about wheelchair basketball like it's football.

"Football will always be my first love," says the 24-year-old 2007 Sanborn Central graduate, "but this is definitely my second love now."

Klinkner was a standout linebacker at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn., before a farming accident in May 2010 ended his career on the field. While working on the family farm in Artesian, a water tank fell on him, resulting in two dislocated vertebrae.

He had rods inserted in his back to keep the spinal cord aligned, but immediately lost the ability to walk, forcing him to a wheelchair. Six months after the accident, Klinkner joined the SMSU wheelchair basketball team. He said he initially didn't want to play the sport, but now says it's been a life-changing decision.

"My hands looked like raw hamburger after the first practice," said Klinkner, who now walks with a cane. "Let's just say they definitely picked on the rookie right away."

This fall, Klinkner will be in his fourth year of playing wheelchair basketball, a sport that allows five years of college eligibility. Although most college sports allow four years of eligibility, wheelchair basketball retains most major rules as basketball, such as scoring and court-size regulations.

Klinkner is no longer a rookie at the sport, but this will be the first full year he takes over as head coach of the squad. In February, near the end of SMSU's most recent season, longtime Mustangs coach Lew Shaver resigned after 29 nonconsecutive years with the team.

At the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Klinkner was Shaver's assistant while also a member of the team's roster. Wheelchair basketball is not an NCAA-affiliated sport, and Klinkner said the National Wheelchair Basketball Association -- the national governing body for the sport -- has no rules against a player also being a coach.

After Shaver resigned, Klinkner took over as interim head coach. The interim tag was pulled from his title after the season. He's been spending about 10 hours a week recruiting to build the roster for the upcoming season. In succeeding Shaver, Klinkner follows an NWBA Hall of Fame member who helped SMSU to three national wheelchair basketball titles.

"It's a lot of writing letters, emails, calling players and going to national high school games," Klinkner said.

SMSU gives athletic scholarships for wheelchair basketball, but Klinkner declined to give his school's specifics. The NWBA's College Division recognizes eight universities in the nation with wheelchair basketball, and Klinkner said some of them hand out up to seven full-ride scholarships.

When Klinkner started wheelchair basketball three years ago, he felt he was well behind the skill level of other players, despite starting for two-plus years on his high school team, playing what he calls "able-body basketball." As a senior at Sanborn Central, Klinkner was an all-conference selection.

The NWBA has 49 high school teams in its Juniors Division, and Klinkner said three out of every four players start the sport when they're in middle school. South Dakota has one youth wheelchair basketball team, the Sioux Falls-based Jr. Sioux Wheelers, who finished second nationally. Klinkner has spent time recruiting a player on the squad. This past year, Klinkner attended the Juniors Division national tournament in Louisville, Ky., for recruiting purposes.

Beyond spending time recruiting in his coaching role, Klinkner says he trains about two hours daily, five times a week. Bus trips to games can be as long as 17 hours. Two years ago, he averaged 6.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, playing in 17 of the team's 21 games. Last year's stats are still being compiled, Klinkner said.

"Some people think of wheelchair basketball, and they think it's not really a sport," he said. "But I would encourage those people to come to a game and you'll see exactly how intense it is to do it. You have to train like an athlete to do it."

Klinkner is unsure what his future will be with the sport. He's working on getting his graduate degree in education with an emphasis on sports leadership, something that could help in the coaching profession. After this season, he has one year of playing eligibility left with SMSU.

"I think it will always be a big part of my life," he said. "I love coaching and I love helping people out. It's a great opportunity to fulfill both of those parts of my life."